The Cardinals rode sixth-round rookie Andre Ellington (left) and low-priced veteran Rashard Mendenhall (center) this season; University of Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey (right) hopes to be the first back drafted.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Ka'Deem Carey is one of the favorites to be the first running back taken in May's draft. Once, that would have meant the University of Arizona product could be a top-10 pick.
Now, that guy might not get chosen until the second round.
"I feel like they think the running back spot is going extinct, for some reason," Carey said at the Scouting combine. "They definitely need us. I'm definitely going to make sure they know that when I step on the field that they made a good pick and running backs aren't going extinct."
Running backs aren't going extinct in the NFL. But they have become more disposable in recent years and any one
individual running back's worth has been lessened as teams chose instead to use a rotation of running backs.
It wasn't that long ago that the Cardinals shelled out big money to bring in Edgerrin James to be their back. Last year, the Cardinals used a cheap free agent on a one-year deal (Rashard Mendenhall) and a sixthr-round draft pick (Andre Ellington) to create what evolved into an adequate running game.
"There was a time when everyone would say, 'A running back makes the line look good,' " Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. "Then defenses got so fast it didn't happen anymore. Then (backs) got injured. You never saw tackles, and you never saw guards or centers in the first 20 picks. Now they go off the board because they are harder to find.
"Running backs, they're not a dime a dozen, but there are a bunch of them out there. In every style you are looking for."
Their shelf-life isn't always long. The Cards spent a first-round draft pick on Beanie Wells in 2009; Knee problems and other injuries may prevent him from ever playing again after the Cardinals released him following the 2012 season. Mendenhall, a first-round pick in 2008, is only 26 but already is finding the free-agent market not what he had hoped. Ryan Williams was a second-round pick in 2011 and while he remains on the roster and has a chance to be a factor, injuries have shredded what looked like a promising career.
The Cardinals, even with Mendenhall and Williams around, took Stepfan Taylor in the fifth round of the 2013 draft. And then, with Ellington's draft grade "sticking out like a sore thumb" according to Cardinals' General Manager Steve Keim, the Cards pulled the trigger on yet another back two picks later.
"Unless you have Adrian Peterson or a guy you think is rare and unusual, if he's not special in your mind, you feel you can find the Stepfan Taylors and the Andre Ellingtons down the line," Keim said.
Rams general manager Les Snead quipped that Mike Shanahan was to blame, and while the former Broncos and Redskins coach probably can't be the cause of every team taking running backs later, it was Shanahan's Broncos in the late 1990s that perfected the art of taking late-round or undrafted backs and having them gain 1,000 yards.
The league has also shifted to using multiple backs in a rotation, borne out of concern for injury or wearing a player down over a season. Why would a team spend a high pick on a player who is only going to play part-time?
Ohio State running back Carlos Hyde argued in favor of his brethren, noting "there were two big-time backs in the Super Bowl." But even in that case, with Marshawn Lynch and Knowshon Moreno as one-time first-round picks, both had their careers start to fade before being resuscitated.
And if they hadn't rallied, those teams would have found other backs that probably would have been successful. That's the running back reality these days, without the high pick status or the big-time contracts.
"I'm seeing Reggie Bush and I'm seeing all these boys going first pick, and I'm like, 'OK, that's exactly what I can do, and that's what I'm going to do,' " Carey said. "Nowadays, they're like, 'You've got to go second, third round.' I'm like, 'Why in the hell didn't you tell me this a couple of years ago, that running backs are going extinct?'
"I'm definitely OK with it. I'm just trying to bring back and to show we're definitely valuable. But I definitely would have went to corner(back) or something. Shoot."